The Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany is
the Twelfth Day of Christmas
The Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas, and tonight is known as”Twelfth Night” (or “Twelfthnight”). It begins the celebration of Christ’s revealing His Divinity in three ways, which is formally celebrated tomorrow:
- to the Magi who, guided by the great and mysterious Star of Bethlehem, came to visit Him when He was a Baby (Matthew 2:1-19)
- through His Baptism by St. John, when “the Spirit of God descending as a dove” came upon Him and there was heard a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1), and all Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity were manifest (Note: the Baptism of Our Lord is also commemorated on the 13th of January)
- through His first public miracle — that of the wedding at Cana when Our Lord turned water into wine at the request of His Mother (John 2). Just as God’s first miracle before the Egyptian pharaoh, through Moses, was turning the waters of the Nile into blood, Our Lord’s first miracle was turning water into wine.
In many Catholic homes (especially Italian ones), it’s not Christmas Day that is for giving presents to children, but the Feast of Epiphany, when the gifts are given in a way related to the Magi. So today will have a “feel” of Christmas Eve, and because of the Epiphany’s association with the Magis’ gift-giving, tomorrow is often referred to colloquially as the “Little Christmas.”
It is today that the Three Kings should reach the creche (heretofore, they should be kept away from it) and that Baby Jesus should be adorned with signs of royalty, such as a crown, ermine, and gold or purple cloth. Set up golden candlesticks around the manger where He lies.
Along with the crowns, scepters, gold, and royal purple, peacocks are also a symbol for the day. They are more generally a symbol of immortality (and therefore a good symbol for Easter, too), but also a symbol of royalty and of the glory revealed by Christ today. The most profound symbols of all, though, are light as a symbol of theophany; wine in memory of the miracle at the wedding in Cana; water and the dove in memory of Christ’s Baptism by St. John; the Three Kings, their gifts, and the Star of Bethlehem.
The Magi and Their Gifts
Typified in the Old Testament by the Queen of Saba (Sheba), who entered Jerusalem “with a great train, and riches, and camels that carried spices, and an immense quantity of gold, and precious stones” in order to ascertain King Solomon’s greatness (III Kings 10), the three Magi entered Jerusalem bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the newborn King. The Fathers see in their gifts omens of Christ’s life:
- the gold as a sign of His Kingship. The gifts of gold and frankincense were both prophesied by Isaias in the sixth chapter of his book.
- the frankincense — a gum resin (i.e., dried tree sap) from the Boswellia tree, native to Somalia and southern coastal Arabia — as a sign of His Deity. Mixed with stacte, and onycha, and sweet galbanum, it was used by Moses to set before the tabernacle as an offering to God, and was considered so “holy to the Lord” that it was forbidden to use profanely (see Numbers 30).
- the myrrh — a brownish gum resin from the Commiphora abyssinica tree, native to eastern Africa and Arabia, and used in embalming — as a sign of His death. Myrrh, along with cinnamon and cassius, was used by Moses to “anoint the tabernacle of the testimony, and the ark of the testament” (Numbers 30). It has analgesic properties, too, and was offered, mixed with wine, to Christ on the Cross, which He refused (Mark 15:23). Nicodemus brought myrrh to annoint Our Lord’s Body after death (John 19:39).
The Golden Legend, written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, describes the gifts thus:
…by these three be signified three things that be in Jesu Christ: The precious Deity, the soul full of holiness, and the entire Flesh all pure and without corruption. And these three things be signified that were in the ark of Moses. The rod which flourished, that was the Flesh of Jesu Christ that rose from death to life; the tables wherein the commandments were written, that is the soul, wherein be all the treasures of sapience and science of Godhead. The manna signifieth the Godhead, which hath all sweetness of suavity. By the gold which is most precious of all metals is understood the Deity; by the incense the soul right devout, for the incense signifieth devotion and orison; by the myrrh which preserveth from corruption, is understood the Flesh which was without corruption.
A song perfect for the day, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” written in 1857, speaks of the gifts’ symbolism:
|We three kings of Orient are,
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
|Frankincense to offer have I:
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, gladly raising,
worship him, God Most High. (Refrain)
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Glorious now behold him arise,
The three Magi — Caspar (a.k.a., Gaspar, Kaspar or Jaspar), Melchior, and Balthasar — are seen as the “first fruits of the Gentiles” — those outside of Israel who came to faith. They undoubtedly travelled from Persia (modern Iran, a distance of about a thousand miles from Bethlehem), and their ancestral origins are probably found in Persia, Babylon (modern Iraq), Arabia, India, and/or Ethiopia.
Now, if they were Magi — members of the priestly class — why are they called “Kings”? Because of these verses from Sacred Scripture:
He shall come down like rain upon the fleece; and as showers falling gently upon the earth. In his days shall justice spring up, and abundance of peace, till the moon be taken sway. And he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. Before him the Ethiopians shall fall down: and his enemies shall lick the ground. The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts: And all kings of the earth shall adore him: all nations shall serve him
Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the. strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.
How do we know there were three? We don’t know that from Scripture, but tradition relates that were were three, and that there were three gifts mentioned supports this notion as well. Tradition says, too, that these three men were representative of the three ages of man and of the three “racial types” of man, the three families that descended from Noe’s three sons (Sem, Cham, and Japheth). According to tradition, Caspar was the young, beardless, ruddy descendant of Ham who brought frankincense. Melchior was an old, white-haired, bearded descendant of Sem who brought gold. And Balthasar was a bearded black descendant of Japheth, in the prime of his life, who brought myrrh (see the works of the Venerable Bede). The three Magi: symbols of all the races of man, invited to worship the One God as one, and all equally beloved by Him. As different as the peoples of the world may be, as different as the cultures and languages that have arisen, and as prudent or imprudent our living together in one place may be given differences in various groups’ ways of life, we are all potentially one in Him.
Tradition also has it that the kings were baptized by St. Thomas, and they are considered Saints of the Church. Though their feasts aren’t celebrated liturgically, the dates given for them in the martyrology are as follows: St. Caspar on 1 January; St. Melchior on 6 January; and St. Balthasar on 11 January.
The cathedral in Cologne, Germany contains the relics of the Magi, discovered in Persia and brought to Constantinople by St. Helena, transferred to Milan in the fifth century, and then to Cologne in 1163. Their trip to Cologne — said to have taken place on three separate ships — is the genesis of the carol “I Saw Three Ships,” the lyrics of which were later amended to speak of the Holy Family rather than the Magi, and of their sailing to Bethlehem (a physical impossibility in real life) rather than to Cologne. The modern lyrics are:
|I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning.
And what was in those ships all three,
Our Savior Christ and His lady,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three,
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
|And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.
And all the angels in Heav’n shall sing,
And all the souls on Earth shall sing,
Then let us all rejoice again,
Cologne Cathedral and the Magis’ reliquary
The three stars that make up the belt of the constellation Orion are often called “The Three Kings” or “the Magi” in honor of the men who travelled so far to honor Our Lord. On a clear night, this constellation is easily seen in Winter’s southern sky, so take your children outside to see a beautiful symbol, made of stars, of the men who followed the Star of Bethlehem. If you follow the line of the belt southward, you will see lovely bluish-white Sirius (the Dog Star), the brightest star in the night sky. It’s as if “the Magi” are following the “Star of Bethlehem” forever… 1
The Star of Bethlehem
The next great symbol of the day is the glorious Star of Bethlehem. There are so many theories now as to what, exactly, this “Star of Wonder” was. Some believe it was a comet or a supernova. Some believe it was actually a conjunction of planets. 2 The Fathers, like St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 50 – c.100), though, believed it was completely miraculous, like the pillar of fire of Numbers 13:21: “And the Lord went before them to shew the way by day in a pillar of a cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire: that he might be the guide of their journey at both times.” St. Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians:
A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of Which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else in the heavens.
St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) (and St. Thomas Aquinas after him), also believed it was a miraculous event. He wrote in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew:
For if ye can learn what the star was, and of what kind, and whether it were one of the common stars, or new and unlike the rest, and whether it was a star by nature or a star in appearance only, we shall easily know the other things also. Whence then will these points be manifest? From the very things that are written. Thus, that this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is not, there is not any star that moves by this way, but whether it be the sun you mention, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this was wafted from north to south; for so is Palestine situated with respect to Persia.
The apocryphal Protoevangelium of St. James (ca. A.D. 125) has the Magi saying to Herod:
We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him.
Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) described it like this in his thirty-first sermon:
To three wise men, therefore, appeared a star of new splendour in the region of the East, which, being brighter and fairer than the other stars, might easily attract the eyes and minds of those that looked on it, so that at once that might be observed not to be meaningless, which had so unusual an appearance.
But perhaps St. Ephraem (a.k.a. Ephraim), d. 373, describes it best in his “Hymns for Epiphany”:
In the Height and the Depth the Son had two heralds. The star of light proclaimed Him from above; John likewise preached Him from beneath: two heralds, the earthly and the heavenly. The star of light, contrary to nature, shone forth of a sudden; less than the sun yet greater than the sun. Less was it than he in manifest light; and greater than he in secret might because of its mystery.
Its exact nature aside, we’re not sure about precisely when it appeared or for how long. Did it appear at the Annunciation, giving the magi more than nine months to make their way to Bethlehem? Did it appear on Christmas night? Some time in between? No one knows for certain, but whatever it was, this great sign was predicted by the wicked Balaam, as recorded in the Books of Moses:
Therefore taking up his parable, again he said: Balaam the son of Beor hath said: The man whose eye is stopped up, hath said: The hearer of the words of God hath said, who knoweth the doctrine of the Highest, and seeth the visions of the Almighty, who falling hath his eyes opened: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A STAR SHALL RISE out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth. And he shall possess Idumea: the inheritance of Seir shall come to their enemies, but Israel shall do manfully. Out of Jacob shall he come that shall rule, and shall destroy the remains of the city.
— and the Magi knew it.
Show natural symbols of the Star to your children inside a cross-sectioned apple, in poinsettias, on one side of a sand dollar, in the flower called “Star-of-Bethlehem” (Ornithogalum umbellatum), etc.
Another flower associated with the Star of Bethlehem is the Ox-Eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), also called “Mary’s Star.” Legend says that after the Magi followed the Star of Bethlehem to the right town, they didn’t know where exactly to go. St. Melchior looked down and saw the Ox-Eye Daisy, noticed its resemblance to the Star they’d been following, so plucked it up. When he did, the door to the place of Christ’s nativity opened, showing the Magi where the King of Kings lay.
Other Customs for the Day
After a nice candlelight feast (try adding some myrrh or frankincense fragrance oil to your candles tonight!), there is the tradition of drinking a medieval wassail called “Lamb’s Wool,” which is said to take its name from “La Mas Ubhal,” which means “the day of the apple fruit” (and was pronounced like “lamasool”). “Three Kings Cake” is eaten in honor of the three kings, one slice being set aside “for God.” Recipes for the latter vary from country to country, but they almost always include a trinket or dried bean hidden inside. The cake should be cut by the youngest person present, and the person who gets the slice with the trinket or dried bean is the King or Queen of the Day and gets to choose a consort (this is the French method). An old English way of doing this is to bake two cakes, one for the men baked with a bean for the King, the other for the women, with a dried pea for the Queen. Yet a third option is to make a cupcake-sized cake for each person, with a pea in one and a bean in one, keeping the two separate so you’ll know from which batch to serve the men and the women.
The King and Queen, once chosen, are honored, obeyed, treated and addressed as royalty. When they drink, all cry out “The King (or Queen) drinks!” and take a sip of their own beverages. Some hide a clove in the cake, too, and whoever receives the piece containing it is the Fool (if you have a man’s cake for choosing the King, and a woman’s cake for choosing the Queen, you could have a clove in each to choose a Fool of each sex). Why not go all out and provide the “monarchs” with golden crowns and scepters — and any “fools” with silly, fool-ish hats?
But getting the piece of the cake with the trinket isn’t all fun: in Mexico, the person who received the trinket has to host a party on Candlemas.
The custom of choosing Twelfthnight “royalty” is described in “Twelfth Night: Or King and Queen” by the English poet, Robert Herrick (A.D. 1591-1674):
Twelfth Night: Or King and Queen
Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.
Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.
Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool:
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.
Give then to the king
And queen wassailing:
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
And here are the recipes for the French “Galette des Rois” (“Cake of the Kings”), and for the “Lamb’s Wool” mentioned in the poem above — a drink made of roasted apples, cider, and nutmeg:
Galette des Rois
1/4 cup almond paste
1/4 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
1 (17.25 ounce) package frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 dry kidney bean or pea or nut or trinket made of china (a “feve”)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Place the almond paste into a food processor or blender with about half of the sugar, and process until well blended. Add the butter and remaining sugar using and process until smooth, then blend in 1 egg, vanilla extract, almond extract, flour and salt. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Butter a baking sheet or line with parchment paper, and set aside.
Roll out one sheet of the puff pastry into an 11 inch square. Keep the pastry cool, do not knead or stretch. Use a large pie plate, cake pan or frying pan to trace an 11 inch circle onto the dough using the tip of a small knife. Place the circle of pastry onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second sheet of pastry. Refrigerate both sheets.
Mound the almond filling onto the center of the pastry that is on the baking sheet. Leave about 1 1/2 inch margin at the edges. Press the bean or feve down into the filling. Place the second sheet of pastry on top, and press down the edges to seal. Beat the remaining egg with a fork, and lightly brush onto the top of the gallette. Use a knife to make a criss cross pattern in the egg wash, and then prick several small slits in the top to vent steam while baking.
Bake for 15 minutes in the preheated oven. Do not open the oven until the time is up, as the pastry will not fully puff. Remove from the oven, and dust with confectioners’ sugar. Return to the oven, and cook for an additional 12 to 15 minutes, or until the top is a deep golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Lay a golden paper crown gently on top of the cake. This will be used to crown the person who finds the bean or feve. Serve warm or cold. Make sure to tell everyone that something is hidden inside the cake lest they eat it if it’s inedible!
The French method of serving this cake is for the youngest person in the room to hide under the table and shout out who gets which piece. The person who gets the piece with the hidden object chooses his Queen (or her King). One piece is always set aside “for God” (it’s known as “le part du Bon Dieu”). This cake is said to serve 16.
6 baking apples, cored
2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup brown sugar, depending on sweetness of cider/ale
2 quarts cider, hard cider, ale, or a mixture of cider and ale
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Roast the apples in a baking pan at 450 degrees F. for around an hour, until they are very soft and bursting open. In a large saucepan, dissolve the sugar a few tablespoons at a time in the liquid of choice, tasting for sweetness. Add the spices. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Pour the liquid over the apples (left whole or smashed up) in a large punch bowl. Serve with nuts.
Another Twelfthnight custom is the singing of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a “memory and forfeit” game; whoever forgets one of the gifts is out. Click here for the real lyrics to and information about this song.
Children from Spanish cultures go to bed on this night in anticipation of a visit from the Three Kings (the Magi, or Wise Men). They get snacks for the Kings’ camels (hay or grass) which some leave in boxes underneath their beds, and others leave in their shoes near the fireplace. They awaken to find that the snacks are gone and presents are left in their place.
Italian children anticipate a visit from La Befana, an old woman who was invited by the Magi to accompany them in their search for the newborn King. The old woman, whose name comes from the Italian word for Epiphany (“Epifania”), was too busy sweeping her house at the time, but soon realized her error and went out after the Magi, who were far, far ahead of her. She continues her search to this day, riding her broomstick all over the world in search of Jesus. She visits the children of each house and leaves toys and candy for the good ones, and lumps of coal for the bad ones. Children leave out a glass of wine and an orange to sustain her on her way. A children’s song about the old woman:
|La Befana vien di notte,
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva, viva, la Befana!
|La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!
Consider making a Befana “Apple Doll” with your children. She should be dressed in a dress covered by an apron and shawl, with a scarf on her head, and old, broken shoes on her feet. She should have a broom and a sack of candies and coal.
A book English-speaking Italians and Italian Americans might want to read to their children is Tomie De Paola’s “The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story” (link is offsite and will open in a new browser window).
Hymn XV for the Epiphany written by St. Ephraem
Hymn XV for the Epiphany written by St. Ephraem (d. 373) can be downloaded in pdf format (4 pages). It can also be read as a sort of dramatic play for three to 5 actors; download as a play in pdf format here (4 pages):
- In the Birth of the Son light dawned, and darkness fled from the world, and the earth was enlightened; then let it give glory to the brightness of the Father Who has enlightened it!
- He dawned from the womb of the Virgin, and the shadows passed away when He was seen, and the darkness of error was strangled by Him, and the ends of the earth were enlightened that they should give glory.
- Among the peoples there was great tumult, and in the darkness the light dawned, and the nations rejoiced to give glory to Him in Whose Birth they all were enlightened.
- His light shone out over the east; Persia was enlightened by the star: His Epiphany gave good tidings to her and invited her, ” He is come for the sacrifice that brings joy to all.”
- The star of light hasted and came and dawned through the darkness, and summoned them that the peoples should come and exult in the great Light that has come down to earth.
- One envoy from among the stars the firmament sent to proclaim to them, to the sons of Persia, that they might make ready to meet the King and to worship Him.
- Great Assyria when she perceived it called to the Magi and said to them, “Take gifts and go, honour Him the great King Who in Judea has dawned.”
- The princes of Persia, exulting, carried gifts from their region; and they brought to the Son of the Virgin gold and myrrh and frankincense.
- They entered and found Him as a child as He dwelt in the house of the lowly woman; and they drew near and worshipped with gladness, and brought near before Him their treasures.
- Mary said, “For whom are these? and for what purpose? and what is the cause that has called you to come from your country to the Child with your treasures?”
- They said, “Thy Son is a King, and He binds crowns and is King of all; and great is His power over the world, and to His Kingdom shall all be obedient.”
- “At what time did this come to pass, that a lowly woman should bring forth a King? I who am in need and in want, how then could a king come forth from me?”
- “In thee alone has this come to pass that a mighty King from thee should appear; thee in whom poverty shall be magnified, and to thy Son shall crowns be made subject.”
- “Treasures of Kings I have not; riches have never fallen to my lot. My house is lowly and my dwelling needy; why then proclaim ye that my Son is King?”
- “Great treasure is in thy Son, and wealth that suffices to make all rich; for the treasures of kings are impoverished, but He fails not nor can be measured.”
- “Whether haply some other be for you the King that is born, enquire ye concerning Him. This is the son of a lowly woman, of one who is not meet to look on a King.”
- “Can it be that light should ever miss the way whereon it has been sent? It was not darkness that summoned and led us; in light we walked, and thy Son is King.”
- “Lo! ye see a babe without speech, and the house of His mother empty and needy, and of that which pertains to a king nought is in it: how then in it is a king to be seen?”
- “Lo! we see that without speech and at rest is the King, and lowly as thou hast said: but again we see that the stars in the highest He bids haste to proclaim Him.”
- “It were meet, O men, that ye should enquire who is the King, and then adore him; lest haply your way has been mistaken, and another is the King that is born.”
- “It were meet, O maiden, that thou shouldst receive it, that we have learned that thy Son is King, from the star of light that errs not, and plain is the way, and he has led us.”
- “The Child is a little one, and lo! he has not the diadem of a king and of a throne; and what have ye seen that ye should pay honour to Him, as to a king, with your treasures?”
- “A little one, because He willed it for quietness’ sake, and meek now until He be revealed. A time shall be for Him when all diadems shall bow down and worship Him.”
- “Armies he has none; nor has my Son legions and troops: in the poverty of His mother He dwells; why then King is He called by you?”
- “The armies of thy Son are above; they ride on high, and they flame, and one of them it was that came and summoned us, and all our country was dismayed.”
- “The Child is a babe, and how is it possible He should be King, unknown to the world? And they that are mighty and of renown, how can a babe be their ruler?”
- “Thy babe is aged, O Virgin, and Ancient of Days and exalted above all and Adam beside Him is very babe, and in Him all created things are made new.”
- “It is very seemly that ye should expound all the mystery and explain who it is that reveals to you the mystery of my Son, that He is a King in your region.”
- “It is likewise seemly for thee to accept this, that unless the truth had led us we had not wandered hither from the ends of the earth, nor come for the sake of thy Son.”
- “All the mystery as it was wrought among you there in your country, reveal ye to me now as friends. Who was He that called you to come to me?”
- “A mighty Star appeared to us that was glorious exceedingly above the stars, and our land by its fire was kindled; that this King had appeared it bore tidings to us.”
- “Do not, I beseech you, speak of these things in our land lest they rage, and the kings of the earth join together against the Child in their envy.”
- “Be not thou dismayed, O Virgin! Thy Son shall bring to nought all diadems, and set them underneath his heel; and they shall not subdue Him Whom they envy.”
- “Because of Herod I am afraid, that unclean wolf, lest he assail me, and draw his sword and with it cut off the sweet cluster before it be ripe.”
- “Because of Herod fear thou not; for in the hands of thy Son is his throne placed: and as soon as He shall reign it shall be laid low, and his diadem shall fall on the earth beneath.”
- “A torrent of blood is Jerusalem, wherein the excellent ones are slain; and if she perceives Him she will assail Him. In mystery speak ye, and noise it not abroad.”
- “All torrents, and likewise swords, by the hands of thy Son shall be appeased; and the sword of Jerusalem shall be blunted, and shall not desire at all to kill.”
- “The scribes of the priests of Jerusalem pour forth blood and heed not. They will arouse murderous strife against me and against the Child; O Magi, be silent!”
- “The scribes and the priests will be unable to hurt thy son in their envy; for by Him their priesthood shall be dissolved, and their festivals brought to nought.”
- “A Watcher revealed to me, when I received conception of the Babe, that my Son is a King; that His diadem is from on high and is not dissolved, he declared to me even as ye do.”
- “The Watcher, therefore, of whom thou hast spoken is he who came as a star, and was shown to us and brought us good tidings that He is great and glorious above the stars.”
- “That Angel declared to me in his good tidings, when he appeared to me, that to His Kingdom no end shall be and the mystery is kept and shall not be revealed.”
- “The Star also declared again to us that thy Son is He that shall keep the diadem. His aspect was something changed, and he was the Angel and made it not known to us.”
- “Before me when the Watcher showed himself, he called Him his Lord before He was conceived; and as the Son of the Highest announced Him to me: but where His Father is he made not known to me.”
- “Before us he proclaimed in the form of a star that the Lord of the Highest is He Who is born; and over the stars of light thy Son is ruler, and unless He commands they rise not.”
- “In your presence, lo! there are revealed other mysteries, that ye may learn the truth; how in virginity I bare my Son, and He is Son of God; go ye, proclaim Him!”
- “In our presence the Star taught us that His Birth is exalted above the world and above all beings is thy Son, and is Son of God according to thy saying.”
- “The world on high and the world below bear witness to Him, all the Watchers and the stars, that He is Son of God and Lord. Bear ye His fame to your lands!”
- “All the world on high, in one star, has stirred up Persia and she has learnt the truth, that thy Son is Son of God, and to Him shall all peoples be subject.”
- “Peace bear ye to your lands: peace be multiplied in your borders apostles of truth may ye be believed in all the way that ye shall pass through.”
- “The peace of thy Son, it shall bear us in tranquility to our land, as it has led us hither; and when His power shall have grasped the worlds, may He visit our land and bless it!”
- “May Persia rejoice in your glad tidings! may Assyria exult in your coming, And when my Son’s Kingdom shall arise, may He plant His standard in your country!”
- Let the Church sing with rejoicing,” Glory in the Birth of the Highest, by Whom the world above and the world below are illumined!” Blessed be He in Whose Birth all are made glad!
The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
1 Orion as it appears to the naked eye:
From Orion’s belt hangs his dagger, made of what appear to be three stars, but which are actually two stars with the Orion Nebula in the center. Betelgeuse makes up Orion’s right shoulder (to the left from our perspective), and Rigel makes up his left foot. Sirius — which is 8.6 light years away — makes up part of Canis Major, Orion’s hunting dog. Between 3 July and 11 August, it rises and sets with the Sun. This synchronous rising and setting with the Sun makes the star invisible to us, but the combination was believed to lead to the great heat during that time — a period known as “Dog Days” in honor of Sirius. A skychart showing Orion relative to Sirius:
2 St. Augustine (b. 354), in his Contra Faustum, Book II, had this to say to those who believe the Star of Bethlehem was a natural occurence, or that it was detected by means of illicit forms of astrology:
We, too, deny the influence of the stars upon the birth of any man; for we maintain that, by the just law of God, the free-will of man, which chooses good or evil, is under no constraint of necessity. How much less do we subject to any constellation the incarnation of the eternal Creator and Lord of all! When Christ was born after the flesh, the star which the Magi saw had no power as governing, but attended as a witness. Instead of assuming control over Him, it acknowledged Him by the homage it did. Besides, this star was not one of those which from the beginning of the world continue in the course ordained by the Creator. Along with the new birth from the Virgin appeared a new star, which served as a guide to the Magi who were themselves seeking for Christ; for it went before them till they reached the place where they found the Word of God in the form of a child. But what astrologer ever thought of making a star leave its course, and come down to the child that is born, as they imagine, under it? They think that the stars affect the birth, not that the birth changes the course of the stars; so, if the star in the Gospel was one of those heavenly bodies, how could it determine Christ’s action, when it was compelled to change its own action at Christ’s birth? But if, as is more likely, a star which did not exist before appeared to point out Christ, it was the effect of Christ’s birth, and not the cause of it. Christ was not born because the star was there; but the star was there because Christ was born. If there was any fate, it was in the birth, and not in the star. The word fate is derived from a word which means to speak; and since Christ is the Word of God by which all things were spoken before they were, the conjunction of stars is not the fate of Christ, but Christ is the fate of the stars. The same will that made the heavens took our earthly nature. The same power that ruled the stars laid down His life and took it again.
St. Augustine’s take on astrology wasn’t quite as against the idea as it seems. Augustine, like Aquinas, taught against any sort of fatalism, any idea that the stars can override free will, but the idea of the heavenly bodies influencing bodies on earth, including ours, is a different matter. You can read more about that in the Zodiac sub-section of the “Being Catholic” area of this website.